10 reasons your Wi-Fi speed stinks (and what you can do about it)

Is your 802.11n router not keeping up with your 100Mbps downpipe, dropping HD video streams and copying files at mindboggingly slow speeds? We've got 10 remedies that will help.

By , ITworld |  Networking, wifi

flickr/HerryLawford

The first 801.11ac chipsets are coming soon, but 802.11n is likely to stick around for many years to come -- both in the business world and our homes. Unfortunately, the 300Mbps (megabits per second) that the n-standard promises rarely delivers anything even close and proves to be a massive bottleneck in the days of 50/100Mbps (or more?) broadband connections, 1080p video streaming, massive backups and so forth. On the business side of things, even menial tasks such as remote desktop or real-time collaboration suffer from a poor Wi-Fi-connection.

[ RELATED: 5 free ways to get faster Wi-Fi away from your office and home | 8 free Wi-Fi security tools ]

In some of our tests, it wasn't uncommon that a 802.11n connection with devices only a few meters apart (and with only wall in between) can fall back to a mere 2-15 Mbps. And here's where you run into problems:

  • 0.5-2 Mbps: Is enough for all your basic chatting and mailing services, though it will slow down some content-heavy websites -- especially if you've got a 20+ Mbps downpipe.
  • 4-5 Mbps: Enough for handling all websites and basic video streaming.
  • 20+ Mbps: This is the minimum you need to even consider HD streaming. Even though, the typical bitrate of a 720p iTunes TV show is 2-6Mbps, your router needs to compensate for dropouts, other connected clients and prebuffering.
  • 50+ Mbps: Enough for 1080p movies and over-the-air backups.

If you're sick of slow Wi-Fi speeds but hate to go back to Ethernet, we've got a handful of tips that'll help boost weak signals.

1. Check your router's eco settings

Some routers are set up with their "Power savings" mode on by default. The goal: save a few milliwatts. Unfortunately, this commendable approach reduced bandwidth disproportionately. Although my trusty Linksys WRT610N router wasn't set up with unnecessary power savings in mind, I turned on its low power modes just to see the effects:

The "low" setting lowered the power output of my 802.11n router from 19 to 18 watts. Bandwidth was reduced from an already low 19Mbps down to 5Mbps with my clients and router being only separated by a single concrete wall.

If you value bandwidth over minimal power savings, check out the router's setting and look for entries called "Transmission Power" or various Eco modes. Turn them OFF. Also, do check if your router sports some sort of "Automatic" transmission setting. You may want to turn it off and go "100%" all the time.

2. Overcome the laws of physics

Unfortunately, the laws of physics sometimes stand in the way of proper wireless bandwidth and signal strength (where can I file a complaint?). First of all, the distance between your router and the wireless adapter is a more relevant factor than you might think. Here's a rule of thumb: Just by doubling the distance between router and client you can expect throughput to shrink to one-third of its original value. A wireless repeater, which will set you back $20-$100, should boost your signal noticeably.

In addition to distance, the other wireless signal killers are the objects and elements that are in the way of throughput, namely water and metal. Water acts as a blockade for 2.42GHz signals, so it may be wise to get all objects in your home or office that contain any form of liquids out of the way (this includes radiators and flower pots -- no kidding!). Also make sure that metal objects are not in the way of your router and your clients: this goes for metal furniture as well as metal boards, tech gear, etc.

Keep in mind that smooth and shiny surfaces are prone to reflecting signals and thus either creating drops or massive signal problems.

3. Upgrade your router's antenna

Packet loss and weak throughput is often caused by weak antenna design. Good news: You can replace the built-in antenna of your router with something much more powerful. It's a bit of a hassle, but it may make the difference between a slow connection (or none at all) and a speedy line to your router!

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